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Volunteering in Ecuador

Fifteen years ago, when David got his job as a press operator at the local junior college, I was looking through his contract and saw that he could take a year off without losing his job. “I want to take a trip around the world for a year,” I said, “when our child is about 11 or 12. Before we’re eighty and we’re on the cruise with the lap blankets.”

He agreed. It was a long way off. We didn’t even have that child yet.

My husband, 13-year-old son and I are in our 5th month of 14, traveling

the world, part-time budget tourists, and part-time volunteers — both to satisfy our desire to do service in parts of the world where our presence is a glaring testament to what we have and they do not, and to have incredible, once-in-a-lifetime adventures.

In Quito our first day we excitedly found our way to the South American Explorers Club. Every web page, every travel forum, every link to Ecuador and Peru that we had looked at reported that the SAEC was the place to go to find out everything you could want to know about these countries, where you could have a place to relax with other travelers, swap information, read trip reports that would put you on a more intimate footing with the people and places you really wanted to see, where you could store luggage, get mail, organize group hikes, sip tea, find volunteer positions, and generally feel at home.

When we got there we met Melani, the volunteer coordinator and developed our idea: visit several fledgling volunteer projects, document them with photos, and write our experiences. This would, we hoped, encourage members to take advantage of the new volunteer program at the Quito clubhouse and to bring volunteers and visitors to the communities we visited.

We had hopes of visiting five or six places but a week or so in Latin America led to a revision of our expectations, and in the end we visited three. To say Latin Americans are organizationally challenged is to say that the blind have difficulty seeing. With this in mind, it is easier to bear the changes, miscommunications, planned events that don’t occur, unplanned events that go awry, delays and diversions, extra costs, and the tendency of these sweet people to say anything rather than disappoint (more than once I have been assured that “the senora,” for example, was about to return right now, and after over an hour of impatient fuming, I have finally left, only to find out later, that the senora never came back at all that day, and that no one had any idea anyway of where she was, or probably who she was, for that matter).

We go first to the Vivarium in Quito to take photos of the volunteer assistant with the animals. We arrange to arrive at 10. But when we get there, she’s not there. We have to come back later. This is typical. We spend an hour photographing the young volunteer who handles the several snakes and turtles lovingly and with skill. We chat with the director and have a small tour of the building. Though we have explained that we are volunteers hoping to publicize their project and donating our time and film, we are asked at least six times, in the same plaintive voices the street urchins use, to make a donation.

It’s a wonderful small reptile house, and they are looking for volunteers who want to feed and care for the animals.

Our other city projects were taking too long to arrange and it was time to start Spanish school at Ecotrackers Ecuador.. SAEC didn’t know much about them, so it seemed an ideal project to report on.

I discovered Ecotrackers Ecuador in a magazine for young independent budget travelers (we are three out of those four) called Transitions Abroad. Ecotrackers had an enticing web page, promising a week or more volunteer work in one of a diverse cross-section of villages — sparsely populated coastal areas, tribal communities of the jungle, remote indigenous villages of the Andes — teaching English, promoting tourism, working on whatever project is happening, getting an inside look at rural village life . . . a small fee and some time in their Spanish school and a commitment to take photos and write a report . . . but when I wrote to Max Moreno, their director, to ask, well just how much Spanish school do we need to promise to attend at $3/hr? I got wavy answers, the kind I have learned to expect when you ask a direct question down here. I had some misgivings.

When we arrived at Ecotrackers – an office, internet café, Spanish school and comfortable gathering place, Max, a former doctor of tropical diseases, and a charismatic figure with flashing eyes and ideas to match, sat us down. He was engaging, charming, funny, disarmingly attractive. I was glad I hadn’t trusted my first impressions after emailing him.

Several days after we have begun our Spanish lessons, Max tells me, eyes afire with enthusiasm, that we must change our plans and go to volunteer in Guamote, a Quechua village, 97% indigenous, and that we must leave on the bus that very night, because the next day was the day we must take the famous train ride down the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil) – a ride down a narrow canyon where passengers, if they’re crazy enough, can ride on top of the train; and the day after that was the beginning of the town’s once a year fiesta and bullfight.

Max and I drive down to the bus station to find out when the buses leave. The bus station is a hot, dirty, piss-smelling marketplace of bus companies, with venders screeching their departures, each louder than the next, (the operatic ladies belting out RIOBAMBA! RIOBAMBA! RIOBAMBA!) pulling you in as if by your collar, if you don’t know any better, as if the one that has you is the only one there is. We find only one bus, leaving at three a.m. that might or might not arrive in time for the train to Nariz de Diablo, since everyone has a differing opinion of when the train leaves. Its already eight and we haven’t eaten or started to pack yet.

About 10 that night Max and David, an older English gentleman who helps Ecotrackers with their finances, come to our hostal with a saner plan. It is clear one of David’s functions is to temper Max’s more wild bouts of enthusiasm. We are to leave the next morning, Max and his family the day after. We sign a makeshift contract the next morning, have an argument because though the contract says we should pay $7 a day, but Max screams it should be $10, and I have a flash of my earlier misgivings, but we calm him down, and things seem o.k., and we are on our way

On the bus a variety of vendors hop on and off, selling snacks, socks, jewelry, and god. Every bus ride there is one earnest young man with the exact same rap, which I fantasize they must learn from a correspondence course on bus-vending, and which all include the same immortal words of Che Guevara — my Spanish is not good enough to get the whole quote but it has something to do with the man who works hard. The rap always concludes with the assertion that the seller is a good person with a good heart. He has a one time only deal for you, often candy of some kind, and passes it out for you to examine. Culturally naïve, I thought it was a free sample, ate one and was miffed when he demanded I pay for it. Thinking I had been hoodwinked, I refused, and didn’t know why everyone around me was muttering and growling.

It’s not difficult to understand my suspicions, because down here everyone knows when a gringo is coming. Ecuadorians believe we owe them something because we have more than they do Sometimes I feel like a scarecrow made of dollars being pecked night and day by the crows of entitlement. From the little girl in the street who follows you picking at your clothes with a plaintive plea for “un dollar,” to the proprietor who doubles the price, the taxidriver who insists the outrageous fare he announces is fair and just, to those who think that because we can afford to go to Galapagos, therefore we have no right to demand the same prices as everyone else. Is there something to this? How much guilt and how much money must I pay to repair the inequalities?

After a couple of weeks of being pecked, how easy it becomes to generalize and think everyone is out to cheat me.

On the bus, we put our jackets in the compartment overhead but when its time to change buses in Riobamba six uncomfortable hours later, the jackets are gone. I’m tired by then, and cry. Everyone on the next bus is sympathetic. The locals are warmer to us, then (what a way to make friends) and on the connecting bus, David makes origami cranes with fluttering wings and a crowd of children and their parents surrounds him.This sympathy and acceptance help take the sting out of the robbery.

We arrive to a bustling fiesta in Guamote and are taken to the mayor’s booth. The bullfights are in progress. Anyone who is drunk enough, or stupid enough (young males about twenty) can confront the bull, which consists of waving some colored cloth at the bull in an attempt to entice him to charge which once in a while he does causing the erstwhile matador to drop his cloth and flee up the side of the nearest booth.

About an hour into it, a drunk gets too close. The bull forks him and hurls him across its back like a bundle of limp rags; he falls off, is dragged alongside, then trampled, manages to roll away, but then is gored again. Twenty men run on the field and drag him off, with no attention to what might be broken or crushed. It is horrible, unreal, real and compelling. It’s what everyone has come to see. (A few weeks later, on a bus, they show the stupid Arnold movie, The Running Man, in which the world tunes in to a live t.v. show of a real convict attempting to evade Herculean and exotic torture weapon wielding freaks who are trying to kill him, and always succeed to the cheers of the audience. Except finally, of course, in Arnie’s case.)

All day the next day the fights go on, at the back of our booth is a brass band which plays, every so often, the same bad song over and over, loudly. The streets are lined with stalls selling empanadas – deep fried bread drenched in oil and topped with sugar; fries, skewers of meat, bananas fried in pork fat, and hot sugar cane rum – aguar diente – an illegal 80 proof liquor made from cane sugar in local stills and said to produce visions. (What’s legal and illegal, as one restaurant owner puts it, is not very “formal.”) Nelson, a filmmaker perhaps from Quito and perhaps from New York (he has that very ambiguous latin way of answering questions, or maybe its just my Spanish) — cosmpolitan, educated, hip and charismatic, a protégé of Max’s and part of the entourage, tells us it is the best protection against diarrhea and intestinal parasites.

When we buy some aguar diente on the street it is poured from a yellow plastic gas can. “What the liquor doesn’t kill,” David says, “the gasoline will.”

The people stare at us here. Gringos are not a usual sight. Some smile. A few speak to us, a doctor of natural medicine with an algebra book under his arm, a young engineer who tells us that the politicians here are “los corruptos,” – an expression I will hear again and again.

Later, street theatre, and the white-faced performers engage with us. “Have you been robbed,” they ask in Spanish. “Si,” I answer. Disappointed looks, “Then we won’t get to!” Everybody laughs . . . and then they asks us for money. The street performers have the perfect word for this practice: “Colaboracion.”

Finally, after dark, we go to Totorillas – a sprawling hacienda in ruins, white red- roofed single story mansion with huge windows divided into small wood framed cubes and room after room in desuetude. Restored gardens in front and acres on acres of furrowed fields, perfectly sown onions, carrots, potatoes, beets, tomatoes, chamomile, beans, lettuce, cabbage, peppers . . .Its magnificent, serenely beautiful in the crisp air at almost 10,000 feet.

The dueño was an American who lived alone and kept his servants like slaves, jailing them at times in underground cells leftover from colonial times, and killing, reportedly, 12 of them. When he died, no one came from Spain or America to claim the inheritance and the property fell to the municipal government. In just a handful of years the roof had caved in and the rains had destroyed the fine walls and furnishings. The land was treeless and like a desert. Three years ago the local government began its organic farm project (to help the indigenous community) and reforestation (to create a wind break so crops will grow). The project is run by cooperative local committee. We meet Manuel and several of the people in charge, who, with the exception of the mayor himself, are very kind and interested in providing us with the kind of look at their community travelers rarely get.

There’s a long row of refurbished rooms that are being used for the now only occasional tourist but they are hoping to create a kind of working vacation, and its our job to help promote this type of ecotourism here, and to help out with projects at the hacienda. Their connection with Ecotrackers in Quito is one way to bring volunteers. They would like to develop many more, but Guamote is still without the Internet, and their resources are slim.

Our guide is the handyman, Gonzalo, who is a man of great heart and a fine, soft intelligence. He speaks a slow careful Spanish and makes sure we understand everything. He is one of the most patient and kind men I have ever met. We grow quite close to him, and to Marta, the young cook, who is a strong, bright, fiery-eyed woman with whom I instantly feel an intense connection.

She has a two year old, Ariel, and is the first latina who is not amazed that I have only one child. She has decided to have only one child too. It is on the first day, while helping Marta in the kitchen, kneeling down over a bag of tomatoes, discussing what it’s like to have only one kid, that you can spend time with him, and you can afford it, and you recognize that you want some time for one’s self, that the sympathy between us is recognized. This is a woman who grew up, one of ten children, with an abusive father in a mud house in the hills. This is a woman who has never been to Quito, who has only gone to Riobamba (45 minutes away) 3 times in her life, who still wears the indigenous dress, but who is so individual, so much her own person, so strong and clear, that it is as if there are no differences between us, just this warmth and love for each other that keep growing. If we could understand and talk more intensively to each other, the differences might start piling up, but she speaks Spanish very rapidly and I can barely understand her. But, then again I understand her completely, and she, me. And by the end of the week I am in tears to leave her, and now think of her almost every day.

Her brother, Angel, lives there with her. He is a sweet kid who helps around the ranch, rides horses, milks cows, does everything. I hope Jake will connect with him, but Jake is aloof, shy. Angel is 13, stopped going to school because he had suffered a head injury. Little by little I hear more of the story. Finally, Gonzalo tells me Angel killed a cow when he was 8 and his father, a violent idiotic man, beat him. He has seen only one doctor, who told his family that he had a tumor which would get worse and finally make him crazy. I think about telling Max, who used to be a doctor, perhaps he has some friends who can help. We meet some missionaries there who come once a year to build a church. I think about letting them know and maybe their church will take up a collection. Would they?

We eat in the big hacienda kitchen at a long table next to the cocina where Marta cooks. There are several stovetops, but no oven. Big brick ovens are in different parts of the huge hacienda but still in disrepair. Our meals are lovely, family-like and friendly. There is a big fireplace that takes the chill off the large room, and Ariel and his cousins play around us. Meals are large, always a homemade soup to start and then an abundant second course, rice, fresh vegetables, often meat or chicken, occasionally fresh fish from the community’s fishery which we will visit. Everything is drenched in oil.

Max and his family and two English volunteers, Tony and Claire, show up for dinner the next day. Tony and Claire tell us they have come to be part of a horror movie Max wants to make, and so we are cast in his homemade “B” movie (well, not that good) about the spirits of the dead servant prisoners who have arisen to avenge their murders. We improvise creepy scenes, sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace while Nelson pans the camera across our solemn, fanatical faces; parade single file through the nighttime gardens, holding candles and chanting, filing into a handholding circle in the gazebo and ending with a piercing latin shriek.

“Ecotracker Massacre,” I shout. “That’s the name!” They like it.

Back up at the quite comfortable cabin where we are staying, they film an interminable scene where Max plays a detective and his kids are groaning because it is going on forever. We are getting the picture of Max, the director of everything. By now it is clear that he doesn’t listen to anyone, only talks, and talks, and talks. He seems to be that type of irascible madman, as my well-travelled friend Hari puts it, who often runs humanitarian ventures.

His big plan is to have Claire and Tony take Ahayuasca that night at midnight, with Nelson’s friend, Alphonso, the student of shamanism who is traveling with him, as a guide, so he can capture their facial reactions on film and use them in the movie!

What a self-serving invasion, I think, misuse of Ahayausca, sacred visionary plant of Latin American indigenous religion. What a creepy paranoia-provoking intrusion into a hallucinogenic experience! We had not been invited to partake, and at first I had felt miffed, excluded. I had hoped to experience Ayahuasca here in South America, but now I am relieved. I don’t want any part of this.

Several local men had been invited to partake in the ceremony, as part of the movie’s story, but when they learned of the strong reactions the plant might provoke — diarrhea, vomiting, hallucinations — they changed their minds.

There is an extra dose and David is invited to join them. I warn him that it is not the right circumstance, and besides we all had eaten dinner (a fast is advised before ingestion), and its late, and we’re supposed to go on the Nariz de Diablo train the next day. But he can’t resist. It seems they will ride down the nose of the devil this night instead!

So at midnight they ingest. And at one, one by one, Claire and Tony, Nelson, Gonzalo — each throws up violently, with sounds like wild boars, for over an hour. David doesn’t get sick until hours later, around 5 in the morning. It’s very unpleasant for him, even a little scary, and afterwards he needs most of the day to sleep it off. Unfortunately, he experienced little else. He told me Max kept directing his experience, in essence preventing it, telling him to look at this candle or that tree, and that he found it incredibly annoying. Claire had some startling experiences and vision as well as the sickness, and Nelson said his ancestor guides spoke with him, Tony said he would never do it again, and Gonzalo said he was so sick he thought he was going to die, but he thought it was worth it: he had a vision of a guiding hand appearing from nowhere in front of him.

The rest of them leave to take the train ride. But later that afternoon we find them straggling back home. A few hours into the ride, the conductor became furious when $50 flew out the window and stopped the train to search the fields to find it. Later, he derailed the train, some think on purpose, forcing everyone including grandmas, children, and the disabled to walk six kilometers to the nearest village.

I don’t know what the rest of those poor folks did to deserve it, but secretly I think Max and the others are getting what they deserve, and this is what happens if you don’t respect Ayahuasca. (Using mystical belief in the service of my annoyance.)

Max leaves, though his wife and daughters stay, volunteering as well. Our week there is great. We spend a rewarding full day planting over 100 trees to create a windbreak for the newly growing plants. We do some milking and vegetable gathering. We feed the cuyo (guinea pig that is a culinary specialty of the area). David helps lay a floor, Jake weeds seedlings in the greenhouse, and I help Marta in the kitchen. We have long busy days and spend many evenings relaxing with Nelson as our Master of Ceremonies, as he invites us each to sing a song in turn, and then tell a joke or a story, recite a poem, occasionally passing the aguar diente. One evening Alphonso performs a cleansing ceremony for us, to rid the house of the negative spirits of its former tenants.

We are just the second set of volunteers, and our feedback is important to creating a volunteer schedule. Since Max´s wife and kids are there we go on more excursions than we otherwise might – to the local fish hatchery; for an incredible drive into the campo to visit locals at their looms, tiny villages lining the steep hillsides, lone figures traversing a cultivated hillside field, families on burros, families walking their cows to a pasture or back home; we ride horses through the hillside communities (we wait for several hours for the horses to arrive, and only two of the horses have saddles; they convince us it is “no problem” but after 5 hours of riding, David’s posterior is lined with open sores!); and an all day trip to town on Market Day, where the town is transformed into a giant marketplace, animals on the outskirts, clothes and food and household goods within. (We have been invited to make a typical dinner for the 11 of us who are there. Vegetarians and not great cooks, David and I decide to make spaghetti with a vegetarian sauce, and a salad. At the market, we buy food. We spend about $2 on all the ingredients! (though of course many of the vegetables will come from the organic garden). It takes us several hours to prepare. Some of our guests like it, others pretend, the kids make faces.)

I have purchased the shawl that is part of the typical dress that the indigenous women wear and on market day I wear it. It evokes looks and laughter from many women. When I return their laughter with a smile, it seems that most of the laughter is very friendly. “Que bonita!” one kind woman tells me (How pretty!). We visit a field of pigs for sale, a field of sheep, an arena of horses. We wander through the meat market where meat, heads still attached are hung on strings, and the smell of guts and blood mingles with the cooking of typical dishes in the soup stalls. Gonzalo invites us to a typical meal. Like fools we do as in Rome, and eat a soup with the blood of a bull (sangre de torro) on top I will regret this in the not too distant future.

I get very sick the next day, sicker than I’ve ever been but its over in two days.

I recover. And Sunday morning go to town to finally make it down the nose of the devil. The ambience at the train station in town is like an evacuation scene from a foreign film, thousands of poor happy evacuees leaving in droves, squeezed, packed, layered, inside, on top, hanging off, crammed into every conceivable inch of space.

New passengers are clambering on and finding space, we wonder anxiously how to navigate this mad dash for seats while they are all being taken . . . watch and lose.

Luckily, Manuel has a guide-friend on the train who adds us to his group of 15 Spaniards who are not so happy to have 3 more on their laps. Then the ride, 4 hours on top of the train, sitting only on the sweaters we brought (hawkers vending plastic pillows), I’m in between David’s knees, feet on the top rail. Passing exquisite countryside, the tiered and ordered contours of cultivated hillside, giving way to rocky outcropping, then stream, the lone farm in the perfect V of the valley, to the more prosperous city of Alousie, where, incredibly, another 100 passengers waited to board, and did.

Every inch teems with bodies, some standing on the moving train, grazing branches, one ducking a tin pipe that might have knocked his head off. Children and old folks carrying baskets of sodas and sweets walk between legs, holding passengers’ hands and arms as they make their way car to car.

Imagine the Empire Builder, the slick California Zephyr, the elegant Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s queens of the rails with two hundred passengers huddled shrieking and drinking on top of each car.

Descending into this much advertised canyon is not the scary thrill ride we had imagined, spiraling around canyonsides on narrow gauge rails at high speed with sheer drops and hairpin turns with wind and cold tearing at face and hands . . . A slow ramble into a not very deep canyon stopping 3 times to switch tracks for the descent. The Nariz is a nostril shaped hill on one side of the canyon. The best part is the old train station at the bottom, abandoned years ago when the river rose, and all the waving peasants along the way – a row of children in the city on a rooftop holding out their puppies for us to see, an old man alone in a hilly patch of cornfield miles from anywhere, whole families stacking hay. And then it’s back up again. And back to Totorillas where Jake points out the iron gates in the glow of the sunset and I take a photograph.

We’re a little concerned because we realize we are short on cash and that we were supposed to pay here at the community. But Manual tells us its ok if we pay in Quito at Ecotrackers.

But Max shows up the morning we are leaving, and starts screaming at me out on the porch in front of the kitchen that we have to pay here, it says so in the rules, and I’m CHANGING WHAT IT SAYS IN THE CONTRACT!!!! and he threatens that he will make life miserable for us in Ecuador, and he will keep my camera until I pay, and so on.

I tell him not to yell at me. I walk away to breakfast, he follows and it gets worse. I hold my ground. He, eyes bulging with rage, shouts at me to “shut up, silencio, sit down.” I stand up and face him, and half laughing, tell him quietly to shut up, silencio, sit down. He can’t quite believe I am mimicking him, for a second I imagine that he almost cracks and laughs, but instead he gets angrier; he finally shouts that I am in Ecuador and not in the United States!

I tell him I am my own person wherever I am, and no one speaks to me like that Jake is laughing and snaps a picture of him!. He looks completely stunned, turns to Jake, and tells him, “You are a stupid boy!” And then he adds, as if this is the greatest insult he can think of “and I don’t see how you will ever learn Spanish!” He calls me ugly names. Finally David has had enough and starts shouting back. Max grabs his collar and starts to punch him, but Nelson restrains him. Max’s daughters are all there, looking pained.

Marta and Gonzalo are uncomfortable, distraught. I feel like Max has cut to shards our goodbye, left pain and anxiety for our parting instead of the sweet sadness of leaving these friends who had so quickly grown so dear to our hearts.

I try to talk with Manuel. He is confused. He doesn’t really understand what has happened. I say I am sorry this has to happen after such a wonderful time. He only says that life has both its happiness and its pains. Gonzalo says the same thing.

In the end they send Marco along with us all the way back to Quito (6 hour bus ride each way) so we can pay him. It seems quite crazy but their communication and financial resources are quite limited and there seems to be no other secure way to get the money to them.

We are disturbed for days. But we write our reports and I get them the photographs I promised. We find out that Max is a giant problem for all concerned, and we swap stories with other volunteers. .

It’s a real rift in the trip. A sad, dark thing that sits on us and makes everything hard, makes us tired, wary. It’s hard to shake. But time will put it in perspective, and now, months later, the ten unforgettable days far outweigh that miserable hour.

Its clear to me that Max is one of those self-absorbed visionary types with great ideas who should have someone else interfacing with people, and that he is undercutting the great project and service his organization provides. Though the Guamote committee would like to attract ecotourists on their own, their limited resources and remote location hinder them, and they need a big city intermediary, like Ecotrackers, to help. We must remember that Max is not the project, and that our experiences in Guamote and with the people there are what matters, and that in spite of everything, Max made it possible. I reflect on the philosophy of Gonzalo and Manuel – the acceptance of the good and the bad in life. I recommend Ecotrackers still, with our experiences as advice on how better to navigate the waters.

There is no resolution, but days later when we leave he shakes our hands goodbye. We head out of town for a rest in Banos.

What a ride! On the buses, trains, horses, and the warm and lively, sometimes frustrating, sometimes maniacal, always fascinating currents of the minds and hearts of the Ecuadorian people. This volunteer experience has been a spectacular look at a part of Ecuador tourists rarely see (we only saw two other gringos at the fiesta in Guamote) a visit to life in the village, a chance to help, and an opportunity to bridge vast gaps in culture and learn once again that what makes a dear friend can cross all differences and borders.

To contact Ecotrackers Ecuador email them at:, To contact the Totorillas Project directly, write to Manuel Gavin: Municipeo, Guamote Ecuador

Stella Monday

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